Greg Winden saw the living machine thing from the Lockheed’s window as the aircraft made its final approach into Garnet Hill. He’d always enjoyed seeing his father’s house from the plane whenever he flew in from Newark, but it was weird seeing a mechwurm just across the highway. He remembered his father grumbling about being so close to a flight path when planes came over. Garnet Hill was so small that there were only a couple a day, and nowadays the aircraft were so quiet you barely noticed them anyway. Really, his father had little to complain about.
The alien machine changed that. His house and garden were in its path. Both would be crushed under the thing.
Greg stared at it as the plane went by. His earset snapped off some photos.
The thing was like some ancient whale-sized bottom-dwelling sea creature. Bigger than whale-sized. Its black, segmented body would have looked little bigger than a snail, from the altitude, but the passing cars on the highway almost straight below belied its real expanse: they looked like toy cars. Like a kid’s micro-slot car set, with a fascinated frisky cat about to pounce on them. It had to be two hundred yards wide, and more than three times that in length.
Apparently it was one of the smaller ones. Some of the biggest, in Africa, had grown to several miles in length.
Then it was gone, the plane making a last banking maneuver, correcting for final approach.
In the small terminal, Greg saw Annie Smith in an airline uniform, checking baggage tags. She was still slim, though her hair had lost its sheen. They’d dated in school. Two months, then she got pregnant to one of the linebackers. For a moment–a year or more–Greg had felt like he’d never recover from the betrayal, but looking at her now, he felt no animosity. She was just another woman approaching middle age, still living in Garnet Hill.
“Greg,” she said as he reached for his bag.
“Annie.” He pulled the bag off the carousel.
She waved her scanner at the bag, then at his earset. “Not stealing someone else’s bag are you?”
“What’s your little magic thing there say?” He stared at her eyes. There was something about them still. Like a kind of homing beacon. Land here they said, everything’s safe. He was surprised at still feeling a physical attraction.
She glanced at the scanner. “Well,” she said. “Who’d have thought. It’s actually yours. Staying long?”
“Maybe. Dad’s not well.”
She nodded. “I hear that thing’s heading straight for his house.”
Greg nodded. “Crazy, huh? I saw it from the plane. Like a giant slug.”
“Yeah. A few months ago it looked like it was going to mow right through Garnet Hill’s downtown, such as it is, but then the thing budded and changed direction a little. People lost interest when they knew their homes and businesses were safe..”
“But now it’s heading for my old family home back off highway 91.” Greg watched other people taking bags and leaving the terminal, meeting family or heading for the Hertz kiosk.
“Sorry. I remember your Dad. Came back from San Francisco.”
“Shouldn’t you be checking those bags?”
Annie glanced over, then back at him with a grin. “It’s Garnet Hill, Nebraska. Who’s going to steal a bag?” She paused, watching his face. “Regulations. I’ve got to appear to be checking bags. Makes everyone feel better.”
“Sure.” Greg shuffled his bag up onto his shoulder and headed for the kiosk. “Nice to see you again.”
“Uh,” she said. “Go for a drink? While you’re in town?” She paused. “Maybe.”
He looked back around. Her eyes were wide, the grin had faded. Greg nodded at her. “Sure. Why not?”
She thumbed her earset and he did likewise. His gave a quiet tinkle that it had received her details.
“I’ll be in touch,” she said.
The kiosk gave him a Camaro and told him to have a good day. He found the car–painted cliché red–in the lot between two beige Toyotas. Highway 91, he remembered, was favored by cannonball hoodlums who would try to make it from Omaha to Scottsbluff–clear across the state–in under five hours. His father would complain about them tearing past him when he drove into town. The man would have something to say about Greg arriving in a muscle car.
At the 7-Eleven he grabbed a burrito and an auto-refilling mini-gulp. The store wasn’t set up with earset payments and he had to pay with a manual tap at the counter instead of simply walking out with his purchases. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen an actual person operating a till in New Jersey or on Manhattan. Welcome back to Nebraska, he thought.
Outside of town, he passed a sign about a forthcoming highway closure a mile or so before the turnoff for his father’s house. Greg pulled off the highway near the alien thing to get a better look. He sat on the hood with the burrito and soda. There were some other cars pulled off onto the shoulder too, people leaning up against the fence with bigger cameras. One guy with a tripod.
In the field, the grass was long. Whatever stock the farmer had been running had been long removed. Greg wondered if there were compensation packages for farms. He’d read that the passage of the things chewed up the soil, denuding it of elements, leaving silicon and oxygen, but taking all the metals, lots of carbon. Kind of like mine tailings.
A group of teenagers had walked out into the field to go over to the thing. Someone had strung up Danger tape on a row of posts, but the kids had slipped under or over and were taking pictures of each other pretending to climb up the side.
Greg had never seen one this close up before. Its nose was only a few hundred yards from the highway. It sat, almost motionless on the ground, like a big dark rock. He thought of photos he’d seen of Ayers Rock in the Australian outback. The alien was shaped like that but darker, almost black. It glistened in the low sun as if slick and greasy. It was clearly mechanical: its surface seemed to have some hydraulic sections, joined to cogs and wheels and hinged panels. Most of it was made up of stiff sections. A carapace. Inside, he’d read, the thing was almost as organic as he was, but the exterior was armored like a tank. Better than a tank. The things were practically impossible to kill.
One of the teens threw something into the air. It arced up for a moment, then flew on higher. A radio controlled plane. The kid with the control box moved his arms and whole upper body as he directed the plane, as if the flaps and rudder and throttle required hefty actions rather than simple thumb twiddles.
The plane circled around, rising steadily. After several circuits the boy turned it towards the leviathan. As the little craft swung in close one of the kids yelled something at the pilot and the plane turned as they all laughed, a crash averted.
The alien was higher than Greg had thought at first. Its dark exterior belied its size. It was perhaps as much as three hundred feet high. As tall as a twenty story office block. And, he reminded himself, it was one of the smaller ones.
The plane gained more height and came back towards the alien.
It was then that Greg realized he could tell that it was moving. Tall grass seed heads bent down as the thing pushed across them. It wasn’t fast, slower, he thought, than the movement of an hour hand on an analogue clock. Or perhaps between the speed of a minute hand and an hour hand. Just fast enough to be able to tell that it was moving but so slow that you could never be quite sure from second to second.
The toy aircraft crested the top of the thing and vanished. The boys started arguing. Greg guessed that they must have a camera mounted on the plane, feeding a signal back to their earset screens so they could keep track.
“Some sight, huh?” someone nearby said. A man in a red plaid shirt, leaning on the fence. “Lucky it missed town.”
Greg nodded. “Sure is.”
“Figure it’s going to keep on clear up to the Arctic. Just going to chew a line right through the Dakotas and on through Canada.”
“Really? How far has it come already?” Greg peered back around through the fields. He could see the thing’s track for a while, but lost it in the grasses.
“A couple of hundred miles. Maybe further. They first picked it up somewhere near Dodge City down Kansas.”
“Absolutely. It was already the size of small truck by then.” The man turned and jerked his hand towards a GMC pickup parked across the highway. “Big as my little miss over there.”
“It budded from another one?”
“No. Original. Grew from one of those flecks, I guess.”
Greg had read about the origins, though mostly it seemed sheer sensational speculation. Enquirer stuff. Seeds brought back from one of the exploratory star-probes, accidently scattered across the globe on the wind. The press wanted the drama of it. They likened the aliens to scale insects on a plant, said that they started out just as tiny.
“Are they going to try to stop this one?” Greg asked. He balled up the burrito wrapper and slipped off the rental’s hood. A car pulled up behind, and he saw another park behind the GMC. A police cruiser rolled by, ambling along under thirty. Greg went over to the fence. “Winden,” he said, holding his right hand out to shake. “Greg Winden.”
“Oh, you’re Allan and Bette’s boy?” The man shook Greg’s hand.
“I’m Ed. Ed Standish. I bought an outboard from your Dad’s store a couple of decades ago. How’s your mom doing? She was-”
“She died. About six years back.”
“Sorry to hear that. They moved to San Francisco, didn’t they?”
“Yeah. Dad came back after. He’s raising flowers now.”
“Flowers.” Ed rubbed his chin. “Lot of money in that, I guess. Sure does cost me enough when I’ve got to go out and buy make-up flowers for Kate.” Ed winked at him. “And I gotta do that more often than I’d like, know what I mean?”
Greg agreed, though mostly any flowers he bought seemed to go to waste. It had been a long while since he’d gotten a third date.
“Anyway,” Ed went on. “There were some army types who had a go at blowing it up, back before it changed tack,” the man told him. “But it was kind of token anyway. They’re pretty indestructible.”
“And there’s a lot of them.”
“Army and everyone’s stretched thin. Gotta focus on the big centers. Little Rock.”
Greg nodded. One of the things twice the size of this had scraped its way through a swath of Arkansas, through the city, just missing the Capitol building. They’d evacuated sections of the city, abandoning homes and stores and factories in the thing’s path. Halfway across, it had budded, each section heading off in slightly different directions, sparking a wave of new evacuations.
“Unstoppable,” the man said. “Still, at least there’s nothing much in the way of this one.” He grinned a little. “Well, Canada, but nothing of any consequence.”
Greg smiled, sure that he knew a few Canadians who might take exception.
The boys with the plane yelped. Greg looked across and saw the one with the control box drop his hands to his side. One of the others punched him.
Standish laughed. “See, I could have told you they’d crash it.”
The boy handed the controls over and ran across to the alien’s side. He started climbing. Scrambling up he grabbed protrusions and crevices.
The man shook his head. “What, he’s gonna climb a couple of hundred feet up that thing to find an eight dollar toy?”
Greg heard a whoop on a siren and looked around. The cop had circled back and come to a stop by the Camaro’s left fender. The cop held a microphone to his mouth.
“Son,” his voice came through the rooftop hailer. “Why don’t you come on down from there?”
All the teens turned to face the road. The one up the side stayed where he was, head twisted around.
The kid looked down. He pushed out, let go and dropped to the ground like he knew how to parkour.
“Back this side of the safety tape.”
The teens razzed each other, and hooted, but they walked back away from the alien. The cop racked the microphone and drove off.
“Kind of entertaining, if they’re not cutting your town in half,” Ed said.
“If you’re sixteen.”
“Got that right.” Ed stepped back from the fence and glanced over at his truck. “And it’ll still be here tomorrow. I’d better be on my way home. Say hello to your dad from me. Wish I could say I still had that outboard, but it crapped out years ago.” He held his hand out for Greg to shake. “Not that I can afford to keep a boat anymore anyhow.”
“I know how it is.” Greg took the hand and shook.
Standish headed across the highway. Greg turned to the rental as the teens began clambering back over the fence, laughing and joking.
The sheer volume of flowers surprised Greg as he pulled through his father’s front gate. He didn’t know the kinds of flowers, but there were clearly well-delineated banks of species. Carnations, he knew, the bunched-up reds and yellows thick and vibrant. His father had about an acre, but the flowers had spread out across into the neighboring properties, growing wild and even more lush than in the tended areas.
The old clapboard two-story house had been painted recently. Greg wondered how long it was since he’d actually been out to visit. It could have been as much as a year. There had been flowers, but they’d been nothing like as dense then. He wondered how many florists and supermarkets his father was supplying.
Parking by the old pickup, Greg found his father on the veranda, looking back out at him with his hand on a telescope.
“You made good time,” his father said, raising his hand.
Greg closed the door. “Stopped for a bite. Garden’s looking good.” He went to the trunk to get his bag.
“Ah, the dahlias have got aphids. Infested. It’s all I can do go get them to bud.”
“You spraying?” Greg walked up to the front step. It looked like double-glazing had been fitted to the front rooms. Garnet Hill could get cold in winter.
“Dish wash liquid and lemon juice.”
“Going all organic?” Greg dropped his bag and held out his hand.
His father shook, his grip weaker. Weaker even than Ed Standish’s had been. “Ah, I tried some Monsanto liquid–looks like gold and costs near as much–and it did nothing. Tried and true.”
Greg nodded. “You look well.” His father’s face was drawn, the lines deeper than before, his skin tone just the human side of gray.
“Doctors give me four months, at least.” Smiling he released Greg’s hand. “Maybe six. Most of that’s going to be lost in a morphine haze anyway. Not living, that’s for sure.”
Greg managed a smile back. “Sedation could be kind of fun, no?”
His father snorted and gestured off across the flowers. “This thing’s going to crush my house long before then anyway.”
Greg looked. Through the hedgerows beyond the flowers he could see flashes of cars out on the highway, but beyond, the bulk of the alien worm rose like a mountain. Squinting a little, he could see that he was looking head-on at its leading edge aimed right at him.
His father put his hand on the telescope. “Been watching it for the last week or two. Since it broke through Tony Sinclair’s hedges way out there. Probably be here in a day or two. Nice car, by the way. You get that at Alamo?”
“Hertz. No one else at the airport.”
“See, you should have gone into town. There’s a minivan shuttle, you know? Suze works at Alamo and she would have given you a deal. She knows me.”
“Sure Dad.” Greg didn’t know there was another rental agency in town, and couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t just be at the airport anyway. “What are you going to do?”
“About Suze? Nothing. She’s young enough to be my daughter. Actually, while you’re in town, she could use a date.”
“Stop it Dad. I’m not dating. And I mean, what are you going to do about this thing?”
His father shrugged. “What can I do, huh? The only thing that stops them is a nuke, and, well, that’s not going to leave much of my place now is it?”
“No it’s not.”
“What am I doing? You want a beer? I’ve got Doritos and Coors. I guess you’re a Miller man, but I was going to watch the game later. You’d have time to do a run into town for a six-pack.”
“Coors is fine.”
“Dad.” Greg pointed at the alien. “Your house, your garden, it’s all about to get eaten by that thing.”
“Ah, I’m sure they’ll nuke it before then.”
“The nukes don’t work either. I don’t think. The Africans tried it. Stopped that one, for sure, but it just spread spores all around.”
“That’s right. I remember the Kenyans almost going to war with Zimbabwe over it. There hadn’t been any there, then next thing Nairobi’s dealing with a dozen.”
“Well, guess I’ll just have to wait it out.” His father crouched around, sitting on the edge of a wicker chair and placing his face up to the eyepiece on the telescope. “I figure it’s moving nine or ten yards an hour. What do you think?”
“Sure.” Greg was already starting to plan moving his father out. Get his clothing, medications, toiletries. Definitely his television and connection. Some furniture. The old armchair that had been an antique when Greg had been a boy. Books and CDs. Some of those would be valuable now. His father would never forgive him if he allowed them to be chewed up by the monster.
“Five hundred yards off.” His father looked up from the telescope. “I guess the gives us time.”
“Good. We can get you packed out.” Greg wondered if Suze at Alamo would have a furniture truck on her books. There might be some students around who could help box up for minimum wage.
“Sure. We’ll find you somewhere else. I’ll get your stuff out.”
His father stood. “I’m not going.”
Greg looked at the thing. A land leviathan, bearing down inexorably. It might be slow, but there was no stopping it. “It’s coming right this way. Do you have some plan about stopping it? Turning it?”
“Can’t turn them. Did you see what happened with that wall they built in Chihuahua? Big concrete thing fifty feet high, ten feet thick. You could have held back a reservoir with it. Their wurm slowed down, but only while it chewed its way through. Assimilated all the raw materials into its body. As far as it was concerned it was feeding time. Didn’t discourage it a bit”
“Yeah. I read about that one too.” For a while the mechwurms had dominated the news. Now it had become more like traffic accidents. Dreadful things you learned to live with. “So you need to start packing up. You can’t stay here.”
“Watch me.” His father kept his gaze locked on Greg’s eyes.
After a moment, Greg had to look away. The sun was just setting, sending long streamers of golden light through the horizon clouds and filtering up into the atmosphere. Watching the sun out here always felt like coming home. The perpetual New Jersey haze, and the continuous ranks of buildings always divided him from sunsets. He felt organically linked to Garnet Hill.
“I was getting you a beer, no?” his father said.
Greg nodded. His father headed inside. “How’s that acting thing working out these days? I saw you on the television not so long ago.”
“You saw that?”
“You looked good. Knew what you were doing.”
“I’m not even famous in Nebraska,” Greg said. He wished that his extra work was the least of his acting resume, rather than the most. “It was just a walk-on,” he said. “No lines. I’ve been doing a little theatre work.”
“Accounting pays well. Community theatre not so much.”
His father laughed. “Ah. I guess it’s good being self-employed at that, huh? You can drop everything and rush off to some of those walk-on roles. It was that cop show, wasn’t it? You were in the crowd at the police line at the murder site. Then later on you were in the diner.”
“I was recycled for the week. I had to put in eighty hours on the books the following week just to catch up.”
“Important to do what you love. And to work hard to make your rent and car payments.” In the kitchen his father pulled open the fridge and took out a couple of cans.
“I’m lucky I can balance both.” Greg took the can his father offered. “So, are you just going to stand out in the yard and watch this thing mow down your house?” For a moment Greg thought they might be able to get house movers to lift the house off its foundations and truck it a few hundred yards to the east. He wondered how much that would cost.
“Nope.” His father popped the can open and the chilled beer sizzled for a moment. He sipped. “Gonna be right inside it.”
“Upstairs.” He frowned at Greg. “I’m not leaving the property.”
“Well that’s just foolishness. You’ve got… you can’t just stay.”
“Son, this is my home. See the way the flowers are coming up?” He turned to look through the kitchen windows. “How could I leave this?”
Greg followed his father’s gaze into the maze of vermilions and golds and siennas and thick thick greens. “It’s a farm,” Greg said. “You can plant elsewhere, start again. Or just replant after. If your insurance doesn’t cover the house, we’ll figure it out.”
His father grinned at him. “I’m lucky with the insurance. Well, I mean, you are. It pays out. It’s in the clauses the state made them write in. Turns out that it’s cheaper to rebuild an equivalent than it is to try to move this. You’ll get the option to either take the newly-built house, or take a cash payout.” He squinted a little. “I think the cash option is less by some percentage, but it’s still generous, in a way.” Setting the can on the dining table, his father pulled out one of chairs and sat. He indicated for Greg to take a seat.
Greg stayed standing, but he put his own can down. “Is this because you’re sick?”
His father gave a non-committal wobble of his head, neither a shake or a nod. “The insurance on that is a whole other thing.”
The answer to that seemed obvious to Greg. He put his hands on his forehead and ran his fingers through his hair. “So take the cash and come move in with me. I can get you on my insurance.”
“Oh, sporadic extra work’s got a great plan now, huh? And you can add in family members who’re already terminal?”
“Barris, Cutchen and Alderson. The accounting firm I contract for-”
“When you’re not on the stage.”
Greg managed a smile. “Yeah, that’s right, Dad. Anyway, I have a plan through them, tagged for self-employed. It’s not going to take care of chemo, or whatever, but it’ll do something. I’m sure.”
His father laughed. “You might need to check your plan, son. And it won’t affect my decision.”
Greg kept trying to comprehend what his father was telling him. Staying at the house, watching: that he could have understood, but to commit suicide by letting that alien thing devour him, that was just so far outside reason. He picked up his beer and took a hefty swig.
“You could grab some things, though,” his father said. “You know, some mementos. I know you liked the easy chair from your grandfather’s cabin. I had it recovered about five years back. You can have it.”
“I don’t want that old chair. I want my father, alive. I already lost Mom.” Greg could feel his voice breaking a little. His father didn’t have the right to top himself like this.
“Son. Your mother went much to young, I’ll admit, but me, I’m old.”
“Seventy-three. That’s hardly-”
“And sick, don’t forget that. I’m not making it to seventy-four. Even if you drag me screaming back to Hoboken to eat up your insurance. Let me go with some dignity.”
“Dignity?” Greg thumped the beer back against the table and turned. He went out to the front veranda. The sun was gone, but the sky was still streaked up with red and umber. He could hear crickets out among the flowers, and the soft rustle of the wind through the plants. There were lights out on the highway, shining up at the alien. Its surface glistened back at him. In the time he’d been talking with his father, it had probably advanced another couple of feet.
He heard his father step out behind him.
“There’s no sense in fighting over it. Enjoy your visit.”
Greg almost turned on him. Almost told the man that he would have him forcibly removed. Surely the cops wouldn’t let someone simply lie in their bed while their house was demolished around them.
“I need to be with your mother,” his father said.
“I’m going out,” Greg said. He stomped off the veranda and headed over to the Camaro. His father didn’t try to stop him.
Annie arrived at the bar ten minutes after he’d called. She’d let her hair out, and put on mascara. She looked much younger than when he’d seen her at the airport in her uniform with her hair in a severe bun. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she said, pulling herself up onto the stool next to him.
“I just hadn’t expected… well. Wow.”
She grinned, blushing a little.
“Just a soda, for now,” she said. “Diet Sprite.”
Greg signaled the bartender who filled a glass for her.
“I didn’t think you’d call,” she said. “Kind of surprised.”
For a moment he was about to lie, to tell her that had been his plan from the moment he’d seen her checking the bags. “I needed to talk to someone. My dad’s got some crazy idea and I need to figure out what to do.”
“Uh-huh.” Nonplussed she looked down at her glass, stirred the soda with the little straw.
“Sorry, I’m too old to play games.”
“I get it.” She looked up. “Likewise. What are we now? Thirty-six, thirty-seven?”
“Thirty-seven. You’re, what, twenty-nine?”
“I thought you wanted to be serious, not all playing games.” But she grinned. “And I’m a couple of months younger than you.” She looked around the bar. Some bikers were racking balls on the pool table and some businessmen sat in a corner booth. Someone had the jukebox cranked up with late career Bruce Springsteen. “We could get out of here and grab a bite. Somewhere quieter.” She took a swallow from the soda and set it back down. Slipping off the stool, she said, “And you can tell me about your Dad.”
Greg was done explaining just as their meals arrived. The atmosphere in the diner was quieter, the smell of the coffee enough to keep him awake.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Annie told him. She leant back a little to let the waitress place the plate of wings.
“Maybe if it was your father.” His steak was steaming, but dark and dry. He slopped gravy over the whole plate.
“Maybe.” She looked from his meal and up at him. “I don’t think any amount of gravy is going to make your charcoal there any more edible.”
“I like it well done.”
“You sure do. Did you talk to him?”
“Sure. He’s just a stubborn old man.”
Annie snorted. She picked up a wing and nibbled. “See, I think that means you didn’t talk to him. I think there are a whole bunch of things you just plain don’t know about him.” She kept stripping flesh from the bone with her teeth.
Greg carved into the steak, scooped on some of the potato. It was good. No blood left in the meat at all.
“It sounds to me,” Annie went on, “that you’ve got but a couple more days with your dad, and then that’s it. If it was my father, I’d be spending every moment with him. Not out with some floozy I hadn’t seen in ten years.”
Greg took another bite. He’d thought she was looking pretty, but maybe just a little confrontational for a first date. Not that it was a date, though if he was going to be stuck out here for a week or two sorting things out for his father, then maybe he could see a little more of her.
“My father died,” she said. “Both of them. You don’t know that, I guess. Not long after you’d left town. When you were off in San Francisco, I think. I never saw you after that.”
“I didn’t come home. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah.” She put down the wing and wiped her fingers and her mouth. “If I could have another day with them… well. You know, there are things to say, or not. Maybe you’ve just got to go sit on his front porch with him and chew the fat for the next couple of days. Don’t make him something he isn’t.”
Greg licked his lips and took a sip from his water glass. “I just don’t want him to die.”
“He’s going to die.”
“Not like that, I mean.”
Annie looked at her earset screen. “It’s not even eight-thirty. We should go out to see him.”
“You should take me out there. I might be able to help.”
“Help? I think you’d just try to take his side.”
Annie shrugged and touched her plate. “You think we can get these to go?”
Check back next week for Part 2 of Michael Shone’s “The Flower Garden.”